Left East’s Vladimir Unkovski-Korica spoke with Vedrana Bibić and Tina Tešija from the Women’s Front for Labour and Social Rights in Zagreb.
Could you tell us about who and what gave rise to the Women’s Front for Labour and Social Rights? What does the initiative stand for?
The Women’s Front for Labour and Social Rights is an informal initiative set up in September 2013 in Zagreb, following the call by women’s union groups to numerous civil society associations which deal with the defence of specific human rights (for instance, the rights of asylum seekers, national minorities, the LGBT community, the victims of harassment, et sim), as well as various feminist organisations. The initiative has so far in its work problematised the changes in labour, pensions and social legislation, and reassessed the position of women workers on the labour market and in the home, with a focus on actions, public meetings and the production of texts related to the critique of the flexibilisation of labour legislation in the form of the new labour law, adopted in the summer of 2014.
How has the position and role of women transformed in the post-Yugoslav region?
With the transition to the capitalist mode of production, the position of women, that is women workers, in the post-Yugoslav countries is tied primarily with the process of deindustrialisation, in which many branches of production in which primarily women worked (like the textile industry) have been destroyed, but it is also tied to the consequent expansion of the service sector in which underpaid women work exclusively on fixed-term contracts. As periphery and semi-periphery countries are most exposed to the economic crisis, it is important to underline also the influence of the retreat of the state from the provision of social services, which transfers the burden of childcare and care for the old on to the shoulders of women who are also traditionally responsible for “patching up” household debts. With these processes, in a short period of time, women have progressively lost most of the material rights that they gained with labour market entry.
To what extent would you say that this transformation is part of a wider global transformation? And what is specific about it in Croatia?
The above-mentioned processes are visible in all capitalist economies, although the so-called peripheral European countries are primarily affected, especially those that passed through the transition process during a time of war. Croatia is in that sense in no way specific – after the systematic destruction of industry, the army of unemployed workers, women and men, had to accept any kind of job in order to survive, a process by which the cost of labour power was reduced and by which union organisation has almost become an exclusive privilege of those employed in the public sector. The rate of unemployed youth is among the highest in Europe, and the new labour law legalised almost all forms of underpaid and precarious work. As the economy of the entire country is based on a few months of tourism, it is important to underline the problem of seasonal workers, women and men, who work 12 hours a day without the right to a break or to days off (which is made possible by the so-called system of the redistribution of working hours), where it is women who take on the least paid jobs, as maids, cleaners and support staff.
How has the rest of the left reacted to the formation of a separate women’s organisation? What are some of the debates on the left about the role of women in politics?
If we talk about those organisations we can truly call left, which in Croatia is not represented in parliamentary politics, they certainly supported the establishment of this broad initiative. This is on the one hand self-explanatory because it is precisely those themes around which the Women’s Front has been formed and has been active hitherto are necessarily in the focus of the left and actually point to a conflict between labor and capital. On the other hand, this was not always the case and feminism was sometimes viewed with suspicion, or at least caution, on the left, because it was considered particularistic and divisive of the working class, and the question was considered to be made obsolete after the revolution. Of course, the situation is still far from idyllic and far from the formation of a broad front, but it is possible to say that it is increasingly accepted on the left that the feminist perspective is inseparable from any potent critique of capitalism. We think that the importance of the consideration of the process of social reproduction or unproductive work and the position of women’s work on the left in both theoretical and political activist sense is increasingly recognised, but these themes can still be ghettoized inside feminist discussions, which only slightly protrude into some broader left-wing frames.
Certainly, in this regard things on the left are moving and there are ever more women authors and also male authors who want to touch on these issues going beyond the current status quo apologias which encourage individual women’s activism, which have trans-historical and a-systemic views of patriarchy and the unequal position of women, and which therefore resort to reformist tools in the form of various recommendations, which unfortunately do not deliver. In this regard, issues are now being raised on the left that will press for the inclusion of women and women’s issues in the political struggle, of course, still predominantly on the part of women themselves, and it is important to say that the topic of the number of women in politics for a long time has only had its liberal voice in the form of the lack of mechanisms at the representational level, such as quotas or affirmative action. With trade union confederations, the situation is somewhat different, but explanation requires serious and long analysis of the situation of trade unions after the restoration of capitalism in the periphery of Europe, the complete destruction of many industries which was accompanied by the loss of a large number of members, extremely high rates of unemployment in Croatia, precarisation and flexibilisation of work, perceptions of social dialogue and so on. But, it is one of the important contributions of the Front that it has succeeded gathering in the same battle formation members of trade unions, classic feminist organisations of civil society and left-wing organisations. Unfortunately, this probably says more about how alarming and serious the situation in which we find ourselves really is.
One could argue that women played a major role in the struggles of the twentieth century in our region. During the Second World War, Yugoslavia saw the biggest women’s movement born in Europe during the partisan struggle against the occupiers. During the wars of the 1990s, women were at the foreground of anti-war activism. How would you position the Front today in relation to this proud history?
Yes, as you say, a truly glorious, great history. During the Second World War, in 1942 in Yugoslavia the first women’s mass organization, the Antifascist women’s front (AFŽ) was formed, and women fought with fellow partisans with a rifle on their shoulder, were underground workers, doctors, nurses and teachers in the liberated territories. In the era of the National Liberation Struggle (NOB), they participated in decision-making within the committees of national liberation. After the war, the AFŽ continued to fight against patriarchy, working on gathering women, women’s literacy, teaching them about health and health care, but also organising social care for children. Through the AFŽ, women articulated their political demands and asked for their rights, and many of them were actually guaranteed under socialism. The AFŽ was disbanded in 1953, according to the most important research on this period, in order to prevent the political work of women within the AFŽ, because it was thought that too much emphasis was being placed on women’s issues in separation from the to the common struggle for socialism.
The second period you mention is related to the wars in the region during the 90s, where a really big proportion of feminists and activists from these countries played a unique role in promoting peace, working with victims, demanding condemnation of war crimes of all belligerents and maintaining cooperation throughout the war. Member organizations and individuals within the Women’s Front for Labour and Social Rights (ŽF) certainly cherish the heritage from both periods, and we dependably know that at least one member organisation has, as part of its activities, research focusing precisely on the work of AFŽ, and although we have not emphasised this, the very name of the organisation is a symbolic reminiscence of its fighting attitude in seeking women’s rights. On the other hand, the latter period of wars is more recent and many member organizations and individuals are exactly those that were active as anti-war activists then and are currently still working on such programs and maintaining the same network with colleagues in the region. Although today our countries differ in economic and political conditions, we unfortunately share much in the peripheral position we find ourselves in, the recently-enacted labour laws in Serbia and Croatia are almost the same and they in equal measure stand on the side of capital against labour. In such circumstances, of course it is necessary to take advantage of long-established relations of cooperation among activists in this area, which the ŽF does and intends to deepen in the future.
What have been some of the main interventions of the Front in recent times? What do you plan for the future?
Until now, the ŽF mainly focused on the campaign against the new labour law, i.e. the whole set of social and pension laws that attacked rights won in past struggles. Although the new Labour Act was introduced, we cannot say that our efforts were in vain, a very broad women’s platform has been formed which is recognised by the public, and some of its activities were very visible, such as withdrawal of the Law on temporary and occasional jobs (mini jobs) against which the ŽF come out very strongly. ŽF now has a plan to consolidate its capacities and to continue with the struggle. One of the first activities we have planned is the monitoring of the implementation of the Labour Act and through case studies to try to clearly describe its effects on women.
Vedrana Bibić is a student of Russian and Italian Studies at the Philosophical Faculty of Zagreb. She produced the Subversive Festival and the Festival of European Short Stories. She is a member of BRID, the Feminist Front and the Women’s Front for Labour and Social Rights. Her spheres of interest are feminism and the protection of workers’ and social rights.
Tina Tešija graduated sociology from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. She works at Bilten media portal. She is an activist in OWID (Organization for Workers’ Initiative and Democratisation) and member of the Women’s Front for Labour and Social Rights and Zagreb Feminist Front.
Vladimir Unkovski-Korica (LeftEast) is a member of Marks21 in Serbia. He is a historian and researcher who is currently Assistant Professor at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His upcoming book entitled “The Economic Struggle for Power in Tito’s Yugoslavia: From World War II to Non-Alignment” will be released soon.